by Chioma Agwuegbo - 01 November 2014
Who am I? Who belongs where?
The first question is simple, I am Chioma Agwuegbo, female, Nigerian, and I could go on and on from there. Who belongs where, however, is a slightly more complicated question to answer.
As globalization envelops the world, and migration results in more people being in London who are not Londoners than the British themselves, the conversation about identity, who’s entitled to what, who’s exempt (or not) from what, is becoming louder, albeit not as inclusive as it should be.
A few definitions for clarity: Ethnicity, according to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 7th edition, means ‘belonging to a particular race’, while tribalism refers to ‘behaviour, attitudes, etc. that are based on being loyal to a tribe or other social group’. The future of these two, which is what this piece hopes to scratch, simply speaks to the tomorrow we want/hope to see. Sounds all good, doesn’t it?
So why are they the easiest excuse for political conflict? Why are they the umbrella term for extremely bad behavior? Why does it look like true peace within Africa (and indeed the world), is a potion so elusive we are yet to discover it?
Why is history dotted with sad tales of conflict between the Hausas and Ibos in Nigeria, Kikuyu and Luo in Kenya, Mashona and Matabele in Zimbabwe, and Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi? What logical explanation could ever suffice for the holocaust, and the massacres in the Balkans, Transylvania, etc.? Why is China stifling the Tibetans and Uighurs?
Closer to today, why is Boko Haram a ‘Northern Nigerian’ problem? Why are immigrant Somalians the easiest to target by Kenyans re terrorism?
There are several levels to this.
Research shows that ethnic/tribal bonding cuts through quite a few countries in Africa. Ethnic identity became an issue back in the day when slave trade was rife, partly because people needed to feel safe on the one hand, but on the other hand they also wanted to assert themselves as slave traders. For the former, smaller villages bound by lineage came together (because as we say, blood is thicker than water) and formed leadership structures with powerful chiefs. The stronger the chief, the more diminished the idea that his people would be enslaved (without his consent/knowledge). Of course, time brought colonialism, other forms of organization, and ultimately, the abandonment of the slave trade (at least in most of the forms which existed then). But it was all about survival and that is how these people managed that. As a matter of fact, I hear that the people who we know as our ancestors today, are those who survived the fight to control resources, lordship, and all the things people in that era fought for.
Today, ethnicity and tribalism are stunting growth across Africa, Asia, and even Europe. ET (if you forgive the abbreviation) means that people sometimes don’t feel like they belong in a place, whether they are natives or, first-, second-, or even third-generation immigrants. Politicians adopt an ‘us vs. them’ approach when they get into power. Combine that with thieving lords of misappropriation and it explains why even the most wealthy countries have regions that are severely impoverished.
Note that it is not all doom and gloom with tribalism though, if just the right dose is applied. Israelis and Americans, for instance, have patriotism as one of their strongest attributes, fostering peace, security, and their economies to a large extent. Notice I ignored the very real problem America has with its gun laws.
Interestingly, there are newer forms of tribalism, and in my opinion, they form the first half of the future we are quickly stepping into. Rather than dispersing into several languages, ethnicities and tribes as was the case with the Tower of Babel, there seems to be a convergence brought on by globalization, creating (or attempting to create) one big global society.
Minor languages are dying, and major languages are competing for superiority. ‘Political correctness’ , in trying to ensure fairness and mutual respect, is now creating problems where none existed, religion is moving away from being about blanket organization/followership to becoming about personal acceptance, and it seems like universal standards which will enable us all to establish a stable society, are here to stay.
The other half sees a resurgence of conflicts fueled by religious fanaticism (think Nigeria, ISIS, Kenya, etc.), racial profiling (think Trayvon Martin), political interests (think South Sudan and every other country on earth), and it seems like transnational institutions (UN, EU, NATO, etc.) set up to keep the world together, need more than 24 hours in their day.
Democracy that is touted as the answer to every problem (including headaches and infertility), appears to just pave the path for the ethno-national group in power to remain there, or anoint a loyal successor. We are becoming an even bigger danger to ourselves, again, just as it was in the beginning (think Cain and Abel).
Culture is evolving, bringing with it newer cultures around music, age, sport, art, sex, fashion, technology, etc. Unfortunately, they have also come with the discrimination that attends rating/belonging to one over the other. And here’s some news – this evolution is unending. Technology means that new frontiers will be advanced, sparking trends and new areas where ethnic and tribal machinations can (and will) appear.
One thing remains constant though, the innate, basic definition of right and wrong inherent in everyone, regardless of sex, creed, race, or political affiliation. Acting on that means that we can either choose to live peaceably with each other, or in a very short while the next world will refer to us as we refer to dinosaurs and the Ice Age today.
If there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain about, it is that the discussion about race (and racism), ethnicities and tribes will be ongoing for a long time; a discussion that perhaps will never end.
But here’s a final word: humans are humans are humans; if you went back far enough you’d find we are all related.